Tell a Better Story

Rick Santelli rants about “losers” during the 2009 financial crisis.

I want to remind you of this.

This was in February of 2009. The housing bubble had burst. Financial speculators and banks crashed the economy. Unemployment went up to 7.5%. The jobless claims, highest in 26 years, climbed to a whopping 600,000. In the midst of what became a global financial crisis, this man, Rick Santelli, in what became a viral rant, rejected the idea of a stimulus to people who were losing what little wealth they had accumulated in their homes. He called them “losers who couldn’t afford to pay their mortgages” and balked at the notion he should “help pay for their extra bathrooms.”

In comparison to the crisis we face now, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 seems almost quaint.

We know what happened: Somehow, in the midst of a recession, people whose biggest hurt was losing a little bit of value from their stock portfolio shifted the blame from speculators onto people who didn’t own stocks, whose biggest dream of financial security was owning a home.

I’m glad that the term “gaslighting” has gotten some traction in the intervening years, because this is exactly what that moment was: gaslighting on a massive scale. It takes some gall to blame a crisis manufactured by rich people on middle-class and poor people. Not only were they pissing on us and telling us it was raining—they were blaming us for not bringing an umbrella.

And it didn’t take much to turn “taxed enough already” into some catchphrases for white resentment. Our oligarchs found common cause with white folks who resented a black president. And of course, it affected historically marginalized people—black folks, single women, immigrants, and children—disproportionately. Just like now.

I need to point out that this was an *engineered* crisis. Human beings created it. It was not caused by a virus. Now we face a new crisis, and although it wasn’t engineered by wealthy people playing with money, it has certainly been compounded by them. Because we do not have universal health care, guaranteed time off, and other worker protections, people are forced to work in dangerous conditions, cannot get tested, and do not have the means to self-isolate.

For the last few decades, whenever the notion of universal health care is brought up, they ask, “Who is going to pay for it?” We’re ALL paying for it, right now. We are going to be paying for NOT having universal health care for decades.

This principle has never been clearer: that if my neighbor is not able to thrive, it affects me. Our mutual interdependence means that if my neighbor lacks health care, my own health is endangered. It has never been clearer that blame for this crisis cannot be pinned on the people it hurts. This is not about someone buying “an extra bathroom” they can’t afford.

It has never been clearer that a “social safety net” is not just for my neighbor who is down on their luck — it is for me, for my protection, because it is better for all of us if things like education, health care, and a basic standard of living are available for everyone. It doesn’t make sense for us to pay $30,000 a year to house a prisoner if we could subsidize a drug treatment program for $2000 a year.

“Extra bathroom” my ass. We are ALL paying for not caring for our neighbors.

By the way, in March, Santelli suggested just letting people die from the virus. So yeah. A tiger and his stripes, and all that. They are going to blame us for not bringing an umbrella AGAIN. The only modern industrialized country in the world without universal health care has become the epicenter of preventable death and unnecessary suffering.

Like Pharaoh, they are going to say the reason we don’t want to make bricks with straw, or hamburgers without PPE, is that we are “lazy, lazy” (Exodus 5:8). They do not know the story—that leaders with hardened hearts bring MORE plagues upon their country.

As a person of faith, I understand that we live by certain stories. This is the only script they know.

We have so many better ones.

The Sermon on the Plain: Love Your Enemies

 
Reconciliation_by_Vasconcellos,_Coventry

But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you. (Luke 6:27-31 CEB)

  • Jesus changes direction here so fast that it’s easy to get whiplash. He just said “Woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are full, woe to you who laugh, and woe to you when people speak well of you.” But instead of continuing his diatribe he starts talking about love for enemies. 
  • It’s pretty clear Jesus has put his finger on class resentment. There are two sides, and you have to choose which one you are going to be on. God does take sides, and God is on the side of the poor and powerless. But Jesus begins to paint a picture of the life God wants for this community of prophets. 
  • In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount terms, we’ve jumped from the beginning to the end of chapter 5. We’ve skipped the part about Jesus not abolishing the law, and “you have heard it said… but I say to you.” As I said the other day, I think some of this is implied in the set-up. But Luke’s Jesus isn’t bothering to respond to critics and naysayers. He goes right to the hard stuff. 
  • Luke’s Jesus is all about the contrasts. Rich and poor. Violent and non-violent. Here the contrast is between those who live a violent, selfish life and those who live a nonviolent, generous life. Jesus envisions his community being the latter. 
  • Love… do good… bless… pray. This is how Jesus envisions us treating our enemies. And I will confess, that is not my inclination, especially when I consider the class and political injustices he has just indicated. 
  • But Jesus seems to understand that we cannot change the world simply by fighting. As Carl Jung said, what we resist persists. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. I mean that our resistance cannot be simply fighting or fleeing. We give energy to evil and selfishness when we oppose it with violence or respond in kind. 
  • For this reason, I hear Luke’s golden rule differently than I hear Matthew’s version. Luke’s Jesus sees it as a way to end the world’s vicious cycle of tit-for-tat
  • If we are to be a community of prophets, if we would like to see the Great Reversal, it will only come about if we actually live out this ethic of nonviolent mutuality
  • Love is the key to transformation.

Prayer:
Divine Friend, hatred and resentment come so naturally. Help me to love my enemies.

The Sermon on the Plain: The Flip Side

 
Rousseau_Eat_the_Rich

But how terrible for you who are rich,
    because you have already received your comfort.
How terrible for you who have plenty now,
    because you will be hungry.
How terrible for you who laugh now,
    because you will mourn and weep.
How terrible for you when all speak well of you.
    Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets. (Luke 6:24-26, CEB)

Wow. Are you ready to hear this? I don’t think any of us are ready.

  • This follows the same form as the “happy are you who are poor” section. Jesus names four groups: people who are poor/rich, hungry/full, weeping/laughing, and rejected/praised. 
  • Old translations say “Woe to you.” This is classic prophetic language of the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Ezekiel, and was often followed by descriptions of war, famine, exile, and grief. Jesus is putting on the mantel of the old prophets. 
  • As we saw yesterday, Luke’s Jesus does not spiritualize poverty or oppression. His words are for people experiencing dramatic economic inequality, and so they are relevant to us today. They also hearken back to his mother’s words in Luke: He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. (Luke 1:52-53) 
  • It’s interesting that Luke’s Jesus uses the same logic here that Matthew’s Jesus uses when talking about hypocrisy in giving, prayer, and fasting for show: “You have already received your comfort.” It’s the same rhetoric applied to a different subject, which makes me think Luke and Matthew are, in fact, drawing from the same source document (Q). They’ve just applied it to different things. 
  • This section addresses people on the top, and it’s disturbing and stunning because we all know we want this stuff and spend a huge amount of energy in our lives to acquire it. Who doesn’t want wealth, food security, joy, and people’s praise. Are we not supposed to want wealth, security, and a good reputation? 
  • The implicit lesson, though, is that the system is broken. It’s not that we should all aspire to poverty, hunger, and social rejection. It’s that some people have and others do not. The system praises prophets (ahem, televangelists, ahem) who support the status quo, and they reject reformers and revolutionaries. 
  • Jesus implicitly invites his followers to be a contrast society, to demonstrate the kind of life that flips our corrupt system of inequality to something more just and loving. 
  • But we can’t make that point without directly confronting the power system that maintains injustice. Jesus can’t start off talking about love and peace without exposing the inequality and sin at the heart of human society. 
  • God takes sides. God has a preferential option for the poor. 
  • Too often, churches mute this section of the sermon. They want to talk about love and justice in the abstract without directly exposing and confronting specific injustices. People say it isn’t loving to make rich people uncomfortable, it isn’t loving to call others “false prophets.” Jesus will certainly talk about love in the next section, but first he must make it clear: He isn’t here to play. He’s here to tell the truth.

Prayer:
Just One, shine your light on our society, so that we may see it clearly and confront its problems  courageously.

Time for a New Religion

Hey, American Christians! Time for a new religion.

Christianity hasn’t made you more loving, or generous, or less violent and militaristic. Your scriptures say that God loved the world so much that God gave God’s only son, but you don’t love the world enough to even slow your economy in the face of pandemic or environmental collapse. So obviously, preaching Christianity from American pulpits hasn’t worked for y’all.

So let’s try a different religion. In this one, your immortal soul doesn’t go to heaven or hell. It time-travels and goes into the person who, during your life, you most treated like shit. Your reward, or punishment, is that you get to live their life. Punched someone in the face? You’ll feel it. Spread life-ruining gossip? You’ll feel that, too.

Suffering is inevitable for everyone, of course, but whatever suffering you manufactured for others will be visited upon you.

Of course, you’ll get their joys, too. And maybe you’ll have a chance to learn a lesson and develop more kindness, or maybe the lesson will simply make you more bitter and evil. It’s really up to you.

And here’s the kicker: depending on the size of your effect—say, you created or influenced public policy—you may actually wind up living multiple lives. If, for example, you were a ruthless dictator who killed thousands or millions of people, your reward is that you get to live every single one of their lives. You’ll get their joys, of course, but also millions of dashed dreams, millions of unimaginable griefs, just unbelievable pain. If you were a billionaire whose lobbyists pushed millions into poverty, you get to live ALL of their lives. You’ll get to feel what it’s like to have too much month left at the end of the paycheck. You’ll feel the rage and sadness of watching loved ones die because they can’t afford preventive healthcare. You’ll feel the trauma of racial disparities and other systemic injustices.

What happens to you when you die? You get to walk in the shoes of the people you hurt.

As a matter of fact, it’s silly to say “you’ll get to” live their lives. It’s already happening, because of time travel. See? The pain you inflict upon them is the same pain you are inflicting on yourself now. You just don’t know it yet. You may not even know it then, in the future-present. It depends on how spiritually stupid you insist on being.

You can erase some of this, of course, with your good deeds. And it may be that after you live the lives of people you hurt, you’ll get to live the lives of people you helped. There may be a reward, many lifetimes from now. But I suspect that in this new religion, we’ll need to keep that a far-off hope, because American Christianity has demonstrated it has a far greater affinity for hell and threats of punishment than for heaven. We seem to prefer a theology of deserving to a theology of grace. That’s why I think this new framework will be perfect for us.

And if you’re following the logic of this transmigration of souls, you begin to realize that we’re not actually separate souls. We’re all the same life, which makes it vitally important that we care for each other and the earth while we have the chance. You may have eternity to work it out, but there is an urgency to it—in part because our species won’t live forever, either, especially on our present trajectory. We can’t wait to fix our behavior and our attitudes until tomorrow, because tomorrow is already now.

American Christians, some of you may realize this sounds a lot like Hinduism. And, for the record, India is certainly having their own problems with selfishness, hatred, and terrible social policy right now. But maybe it’s time to try living our private lives (and adopting social policies) that take karma seriously.

You know, like “love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Because those aren’t just hypothetical statements spouted by some random messiah. And your current leaders who are loudest in claiming allegiance to him while doing harm are liars. Or, as he said, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

So it’s time to re-evaluate. It’s time you tried out a different religion. Or no religion at all.

And if this sounds like blasphemy to you, then you never knew Jesus Christ.

(Matthew 7:21-23, Luke 6:46-49, Matthew 25:41-46)

The Sermon on the Plain: Happy are YOU

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From Mother Jones: “How We Won—and Lost—the War on Poverty, in 6 Charts” from 2014. Click image for article.

Jesus raised his eyes to his disciples and said:

“Happy are you who are poor,
    because God’s kingdom is yours.
Happy are you who hunger now,
    because you will be satisfied.
Happy are you who weep now,
    because you will laugh.

Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and condemn your name as evil because of the Human One. Rejoice when that happens! Leap for joy because you have a great reward in heaven. Their ancestors did the same things to the prophets. (Luke 6:20-23, CEB)

There is so much here.

  • If you remember Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, you may remember Jesus saying, “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the Kingdom of [the heavens] is theirs.” Luke says, “Happy are you poor… because God’s kingdom is yours.” Luke’s Jesus is not talking hypotheticals or in third person. Jesus addresses his listeners directly. There is a world of contextual difference between “theirs is the kin-dom” and “yours is the kin-dom.”  
  • Matthew’s Jesus (Sermon on the Mount) first talks about the “poor in spirit,” which the CEB translates as “hopeless.” But Luke’s Jesus (Sermon on the Plain) isn’t talking about “poor in spirit,” just “poor.” As in, cash poor.  
  • Matthew’s Jesus talks about “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Luke’s Jesus talks about “hunger.” As in, empty belly, weak knees, and lightheaded. This is not metaphorical hunger, but poverty-related hunger.  
  • All of this makes Jesus’s solidarity with the poor and oppressed much more concrete. Luke’s Jesus is about liberation and good news for the poor. We Americans cannot spiritualize it or talk about metaphorical poverty. We cannot preach to comfortable middle- and upper-class people about how wealth is morally neutral, and that Jesus was just concerned about the state of people’s hearts. Jesus is talking about class and oppression here.  
  • Later on, when Luke writes Acts, he will talk about how the early church sold and gave away much of their material possessions in order to share things in common and meet collective needs. Luke’s Jesus and Luke’s church is concerned about the material conditions of human pain and prosperity.
     
  • Luke’s Jesus says “Happy are you who weep now, because you will laugh.” I love this active, concrete verb, laugh. By contrast, Matthew’s Jesus says of mourners, “they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Hear the difference?  
  • Luke’s Jesus also adds the word now. “You who hunger now, you who weep now.” The added emphasis indicates Jesus thinks this is a temporary state. A Great Reversal is coming.  
  • As in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus concludes his “happy” section with “Happy are y’all when you are harassed and vilified.” And as there, the implication is that the people he is talking to, his students and followers, are like one of the ancient prophetic guilds. We are a community of prophets.  
  • I love the way the Common English Bible translates “The Human One.” The traditional way of rendering the phrase is “Son of Man,” but that sounds too patriarchal to modern ears and it misses the power of the term. “The Human One” is the one who is coming into the world who manifests what God intended human beings to be. Jesus is the next step in our evolution, the one who demonstrates the fulfillment of being made “in the image of God.”  
  • Christians are used to referring to Jesus as the Son of God, but “Son of God” was a term used mostly for pagan emperors. Jesus’s own preferred term for himself is Son of Man or “The Human One.” I wonder how much of our theology would change if we followed Jesus as The Human One. Adam and Eve—and most religious folks—try very hard to be more like God. Jesus invites us to be more Human.  
  • In comparing Luke and Matthew’s version of the sermon, I honestly do not have a preference for one over the other. They both have nuance and power. My favorite one is whichever I am reading at the moment.

Prayer:
Lord of Love and Life, how do suffering and happiness coexist? Teach me solidarity with my siblings so that I may be truly happy. 

Upper Millstones and the Debt Trap

Deuteronomy 24:6 forbids taking “an upper millstone” in pledge for a debt. The idea is that taking away someone’s ability to make money, to trap them in a deepening cycle of poverty, is immoral. Both states and private businesses (especially payday lenders) collude to make money off the most powerless: the poor. This court victory in Tennessee, which restores driver’s licenses to those who have had them revoked for being too poor to pay fines, is a huge win, and it illustrates the importance of the federal judiciary, from top to bottom.

On “Zero Tolerance”

“Zero tolerance.” Let’s talk about that concept a minute. What does that actually mean?

Does it mean denying due process? Setting bail so high for a misdemeanor that you can’t pay, so that you’d plead guilty in order to get out and keep your job? Because that’s what has happened to countless poor people.

Instead of cash bail, this administration has decided to use family separation in the same way: coercing folks to plead guilty rather than being separated from their kids.

Also: recognize this is what the cash bail system does to poor people all the time: it holds families hostage. If someone is not dangerous, and flight is not a serious risk, they should not be kept in jail. People plead guilty on a regular basis in order to avoid losing their jobs, homes, and kids.

“Zero tolerance” is a myth. We all want due process. That’s why we have courts in the first place: because circumstances matter.